The usual cues at the start of an Australian summer of cricket have all unfolded ahead of the series against South Africa, with a focus on sledging, ferocious fast bowling and the targeting of rival captains.
South Africa’s pace spearhead Dale Steyn up-scaled the rhetoric, though, by referring to Australia captain Steve Smith as being the head of a snake.
“If you can cut off the head of the snake, the rest of the body tends to fall,” Steyn was quoted as saying at the series launch. “We’ve done that in the past. We’ve tried to attack the captain because he is the leader and if we can cause a bit of chaos there, sometimes it does affect the rest of the guys.”
The comments sparked lively dialogue from both sides about the part which verbal intimidation will play in the three-Test series which starts Thursday in Perth.
In a bid to squeeze in more than one high-profit day-night Test, Cricket Australia broke with tradition by shifting the opening Test match of the southern summer away from subtropical Brisbane, where the Gabba has become something of a fortress for the hosts — they’re unbeaten there since 1988 — to Perth, closer to home for the South Africans.
South Africa is unbeaten in Tests at the WACA, and has won the past two convincingly: by 6 wickets and by 309 runs. That, along with a 5-0 sweep in the recent limited-overs series in South Africa and an unsettled Australian lineup, makes the visitors the firm favorites to open the series with a win.
South Africa has only beaten Australia twice in Test series since being re-admitted to international cricket in the 1990s, and both have been in Australia.
The last was in 2012-13, when South Africa clinched the series 1-0 with victory in the third Test in Perth after Australia had the better of the first two Tests but was unable to force a victory.
Faf du Plessis played a significant role in that, batting all through the last day of the second Test in Adelaide to score an unbeaten century and salvage a draw in a man-of-the-match performance on Test debut.
He’ll be leading the South Africans in this series in the absence of injured A.B. de Villiers.
Australia is coming off a 3-0 series loss in Sri Lanka, where it was swept for the first time and lost the No. 1 Test ranking, followed by the ODI sweep in South Africa.
Both bowling attacks are hoping the WACA pitch will return to its typically fast, bouncy nature rather than the lifeless surface produced for the high-scoring draw between Australia and New Zealand last year.
South Africa will Morne Morkel returning from a back injury and is expected to go into the match with a four-man pace attack.
Morkel has “been working extremely hard to try and get back to full fitness, trying to do everything possible,” du Plessis said Wednesday. “He’s been bowling really well.”
Smith has confirmed his starting XI, with Peter Siddle getting the vacant pace spot ahead of uncapped Joe Mennie on the basis of his 12 Tests of experience against South Africa.
“They’re both bowling well,” Smith said. “We’ve gone with Sidds on this occasion and it’s good to have him back after a fair injury layoff.”
Mitchell Starc will return to lead an attack comprising Josh Hazlewood, Siddle, allrounder Mitch Marsh and spinner Nathan Lyon.